By Hal Levy
Protesting in Bushwick? It can be hard to find a staging area, especially around Bushwick Collective’s annual street art party. That event, and much of the land nearby, is increasingly controlled by local real estate startup Nooklyn.
“We wanted to take back art,” says Pati Rodriguez, a founding member of anti-gentrification art collective Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, “since art was being used to whitewash and displace us in the first place.”
Mi Casa tried searching for a staging area near the Bushwick Collective stage that was affected by rising rents and sympathetic to displacement. “That’s not uncommon in the area,” says Pati. Directly behind the party’s main stage, and a block away from Nooklyn’s office, a tenant in the middle of fighting eviction was all too happy to let Mi Casa inside.
“We were very low on the roof,” Pati says, “and on the top of the roof by 8am. It wasn’t a giant roof—two stories—so we were kind of hunched over the entire time.”
From there, Mi Casa was able to drop 3 protest banners: “They want the art, Not the people” + “Artists resist becoming weapons of mass displacement” + “Quieren el arte, No a la gente”.
“A lot of people like to sacrifice accessible language for respectability politics, which is bullshit,” Pati adds. “It’s all about consciousness building. Not academic jargon.”
Headliner Rick Ross had just started his set when the banners dropped, so Mi Casa got maximum exposure. And Rick Ross might just be a Mi Casa fan. He saw the banners and left soon after, without saying anything to the audience and visibly surprising the concert MC.
Making Protests Accessible
“Most of our art is based in direct action, making protest signs in homes for working class people who don’t have time to march in Manhattan,” adds Pati. “We protest where we are.”
Mi Casa will flyer, project, and distribute slogans like Gentrification is the New Colonialism and Decolonize the Hood. It’s “kind of like marketing for revolutionary thought,” Pati says, “because a lot of the things have to do with wording.”
Pati noticed some of the first changes in Bushwick over the past decade came slowly. “They use all this academic language, so that you don’t know what’s going on in your own hood until rents are going up and you’re fighting all the luxury development going around.” She notes that longtime stores and restaurants that survive in the neighborhood have still raised prices to meet rising rents.
Mi Casa also frames problems in accessible language. For instance, focusing on the impact of rezoning instead of the uninviting process behind it.
“Accessible means that we use simple ways and language to learn about complex things. We demonstrate connections between gentrification in our neighborhood and histories of systemic oppression,” Pati says. “Government policies have displaced black and brown people from the land since 1492.”
Art for Resistance
Like many artist-activists, Pati didn’t consider herself an artist until her group developed.
Initially Pati began by planning to make a protest collage, with her daughter, of the many letters her parents got from real estate developers trying to buy their house. Several friends joined on.
“We all kinda found each other. We’re all from New York. ‘Why don’t you put lights on [the collage]?,’ someone said.” Mi Casa started working with The NY Light Brigade, an art collective borne out of Occupy Wall Street that projects images on walls and creates light signs for protests.
Mi Casa changed the Light Brigade’s original design to suit the neighborhood. While the Light Brigade used solar LEDs, Mi Casa made signs out of leftover Christmas lights from corner stores. The Light Brigade’s signs were intended to be held at marches, so Mi Casa adapted by weatherproofing signs for longer-term use.
To display signs outdoors, Pati says, “we added pieces of wood so the signs could be more stable. Also we [added] spray paint in order to make that little New York touch.”
Putting in the lights is the most time-consuming part of the process, Pati notes. So Mi Casa holds all-day light sign art building workshops, which bring in additional community support.
“All brown and black people—for free—we were all in this,” Pati says. And word about Mi Casa has spread across the city.
You can find Mi Casa’s work in at least four boroughs. Once they built a sign in Mandarin that went to the Chinatown Art Brigade.
Spreading the Word
Although word traveled locally about Mi Casa’s action at the Bushwick Collective event, Pati said, there was little press at first.
“It’s important that the marginalized lead. And we think it’s essential—super important—that the marginalized be able to dictate their own stories and narrate their own history. Because otherwise it is lost with big media BS.”
That’s why much of Mi Casa’s work is the follow-up after actions, in addition to their art itself.
“It HAS to go on social media. If press isn’t there we do our own thing. And then, press comes to us. We went out and documented. That’s why we’re a multimedia project.”
Empowering existing communities is key to fighting displacement. “Bushwick is still predominantly Latino and black. People remember that. We can’t be erased, we can’t fall into that narrative that Brooklyn is predominantly white.” Remembering, Pati adds, “it’s Lenape land in the first place.”
Mi Casa has little trust in current city planning mechanisms, believing that the Department of City Planning (DCP) primarily focuses on making construction easier for luxury developers. Now, Mi Casa is taking the lead in organizing against the local rezoning process known as the Bushwick Neighborhood Plan. They’ve declared a #battle4bushwick on social media to help change the all-encompassing rules.
DCP’s main vehicle of engagement in Bushwick is Community Board 4, which has a long history of collusion with developers. As far back as 2013, CB4 endorsed a residential rezoning approval on the massive Rheingold Brewery lot, after the developer promised that 30% of units would go towards affordable housing. The developer broke their affordability promise, but completed the largest luxury apartment complex in Bushwick. It’s primarily brokered by Nooklyn.
“The plan is 100% upzoning,” Pati says, effectively pushing out small businesses and bodegas. “We’re looking for allyship—people who own small businesses, especially black-owned small businesses and native residents.”
After coming out in full force during the Bushwick Collective block party through flyering, getting positive comments from vendors and artists, and dropping banners behind the stage, Mi Casa hasn’t heard anything from the organizers.
“We never asked anything from them either. We just crashed their party,” Pati says. “And we actually gained a lot of new members since that action, natives and residents.”
Not to be left out, Mi Casa continues to stage their own parties. Their most recent event was a showcase for oral histories about housing activism. Organizers from across the city came to Starr Bar to talk about spreading visual resistance to gentrification beyond Bushwick.
Photo credit mi casa FB:
“That’s the thing that we always fight also,” says Pati. “’Why do we always have to build luxury development? Oh because they have the money, that’s the answer.”
To effect change, Mi Casa researches local causes of displacement, then remarkets the issue in easy-to-understand language that encourages activism.
When a community planning meeting takes place in Bushwick, you can expect to find their art nearby.